By Kathleen A. Barr
“Don’t pull her hair,” her husband said.
But Jo didn’t listen, and it was the beginning of a friendship which truly blessed me. After I felt a gentle tug on my locks, I turned around and smiled. This was one of the first Sundays my husband, Richard, was preaching at South Venice Christian Church in Venice, Florida. Who would take the chance of pulling the hair of the new minister’s wife?
Josephine Martin and I soon became friends, and over the 13 years that we ministered there, she and I worked on church-related and other projects. Jo loved her Lord passionately and was loved by many people because of her love for God. Jo and I visited church members in the hospital, greeted on Sundays, and cleaned the church building together, among other tasks. Life was wonderful when I was in Jo’s presence. Her unconditional love for saints and sinners set an example for other believers, including me.
But there was another reason our relationship was so valuable to me. Over time, there were instances when she became my mother, someone I could turn to for advice and encouragement. The many lessons she had learned over the years caused her to persevere in tough times, love even when it was difficult, and gain strength from her Lord and Savior.
My life changed dramatically on April 1, 1959. My mother entered the hospital a few days earlier, ready to deliver her third child. Pain had marked the last trimester of her pregnancy, but the doctor had assured her that it was nothing to worry about. Who didn’t have back pain when they were close to delivering a child?
Unfortunately the doctor was wrong. My mother’s liver was failing, and she died two days after delivery. What was supposed to be a joyous homecoming turned, instead, into an occasion in which my father told me that my mother had died, and my baby brother was being adopted by an aunt. Just 5 years old, I didn’t know how to respond to the news, but I was heartbroken. I loved my mother and was awaiting the day when I could hold my new brother.
My father was fortunate—both his mother and mother-in-law agreed to help raise me and my 3-year-old brother. We moved in with my paternal grandmother and often saw my mother’s mother. Blessed by their presence in our lives, life went on.
However, one consequence of losing my mother so unexpectedly was the fear I felt about losing my grandmother. When it was time to enter first grade a few months after my mother’s death, my fear became obvious. She was kind enough to ride to school with me and the other children who carpooled to the local parochial school. She did this for several months until I had adjusted to the new school. God provided a grandmother, who, although she was somewhat strict and stern, cared dearly for us and did all she could to provide a safe and secure environment. After she accompanied me to school for several months, I never doubted her love for me.
My maternal grandmother, although devastated by the loss of her daughter, also provided a safe haven for my brother and me. We saw her several times a month, and she showed her love for me by making me beautiful dresses to wear to church. I know she loved God and recall her reading me books about how he provided guardian angels to care for us.
On a more practical level, since she didn’t drive, when I stayed with her on a school night, she would take the long walk to school with us. She spoiled us on hot summer days by buying us the most expensive ice cream from the man on the truck that drove through her neighborhood. I knew I was loved!
As I grew older, though, one of the most difficult issues for me to face was that, deep inside, I couldn’t understand a God who would take my mother from me. Warned by ministers that I shouldn’t be sad because of my loss because “God needed her in Heaven,” I found it hard to believe that God needed my mother more than I did. Didn’t he know the suffering this caused me? My father was not happy about living with his mother and was rarely at home. When I was a teen, my father’s drinking escalated to the point where it impaired his ability to parent us. Didn’t God see that coming too?
I couldn’t find an answer to this question, so in my adolescent years, I gave up on God. I stopped attending services and didn’t give him much thought. It wasn’t until I met my future husband and we married that I came back around. I was blessed by the love and example set by Christian women I met over the years. I cannot begin to name all of them, but a few come to mind:
• Barbara Mechler led me to the Lord and was incredibly helpful when I was bedfast during the last month of my first pregnancy. Barbara arranged to have meals brought to our home from church members during that challenging time.
• Sue Larson taught me how to bake an apple pie.
• Jeanette Gallagher helped me plan my daughter’s wedding reception.
• Dotty McGrath was always ready to listen to my problems and give me words of wisdom and encouragement.
There are many women who, through the example they set as being loving wives and mothers, have taught me how to show the love of Christ to family and friends. Churches can play a vital role in assisting those from broken families.
Good Out of Tragedy
There are still many things that I could be better at, and that I might have learned had I grown up in a “traditional” family. Don’t even think of asking me to sew something! As far as cooking, I depend on boxes of macaroni and cheese and bags of frozen dinners to help me fix meals.
However, I can see the good that God has brought out of the tragedy of my mother’s early demise. I have a special place in my heart for girls in challenging situations. This has motivated me to become a Big Sister a couple of times and to minister to girls in the congregations where we have worked who, because of their mother’s incarceration, needed someone to become involved in their lives.
Back to Jo Martin. Jo’s funeral was one of the most moving services I ever attended. At the end of the service, doves were released into the sky to symbolize her spirit going to Heaven. As heartbroken as I was to lose this wonderful friend and mother figure, I could rejoice in the fact that one day, she and I will be reunited and be with our Lord for eternity. That is a promise that all of us—those from intact families and those who, for whatever reason, come from fractured families—can embrace in difficult times. Praise God for his infinite love!
Kathleen A. Barr is a freelance writer in Ooltewah, Tennessee.